How the English made the Alps by Jim Ring


Word PressIn Zermatt, the beautiful Swiss village from which I’ve been up (not on foot, I hasten to add!) the Matterhorn and the Gornergrat, there’s an Anglican church. In its grounds is a graveyard. Many of those buried there died in their attempts to scale one or other of the great Alpine peaks. On a happier note, the front cover of this book shows a large cow drawing a cart containing several crates of Lyons’ tea through a snowy Swiss landscape, with the Matterhorn in the background.

So. How did the English make the Alps? The author explains that he’s used the term “English” rather than “British” because that’s what people in Alpine areas would have done in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’m not really getting why that means he couldn’t use “British”, but anyway. He then goes on to say that the Alps were feared and disliked until the 18th century. I’m not entirely convinced about that. Look at how many times Italy’s been invaded, and the importance of Italy in medieval and early modern trade. Yes, a lot of that was by sea, but the Alps were hardly seen as some sort of impassable barrier. There are also various comments about the Alpine peasantry historically being afflicted by goitre and “cretinism”, which, whilst I can imagine that sort of comment being common in a Georgian or Victorian guidebook, sits very uncomfortably in a book written within the last twenty years.

Moving on to the good stuff! After the Seven Years’ War came the heyday of the Grand Tour. Ring says that interest in the Alps was stimulated by the Enlightenment, and in particular inspired by Rousseau. The Social Contract is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read in my entire life, and consequently I’ve never read anything else by Rousseau and can’t imagine him inspiring anyone; but, yes, the Enlightenment with its interest in both science and nature did get people interested in mountains. And then came the Romantics. Hooray! I love the Romantics! Wordsworth! Ruskin! Yay! And Byron and Shelley as well. We all love lakes and mountains! Well, mountains, anyway: the beautiful Alpine lakes scarcely get a mention in this book, which is a shame.

Of course, all this gets interrupted by the wars following the French Revolution, but Napoleon has to be given credit for improving the roads through Central Europe. And along come the railways and the steamers – and it was the British who brought these to most of the Alpine areas. How amazing were the Victorians? A bit more interruption, due to the 1848 Revolutions (which everyone always says didn’t affect Britain, but actually they did, because there was a revolution in Ashton-under-Lyne. Well, sort of. Anyway, that’s beside the point), but the middle decades of the 19th century, with Britain full of industrial-era confidence, saw more and more British people heading for the Alps. Even Queen Victoria went: she made her first visit to the Alps, to Lucerne, in 1868.

This period is the crucial part of the story, and there’s an awful lot to think about. Despite what the author says, this isn’t the entire reason that English has become the international language – but it certainly played a part in it. And we get hotels catering to British tastes springing up across Switzerland, and parts of Italy, France and Austria. There are a lot of amusing quotes involving the poor quality of both the tea and the toilets on the Continent: some things never change!   And, of course, there are all sorts of class issues. We get the likes of Arnold Lunn (of what became Lunn Poly) setting up Public School Alpine clubs, and wanting to keep it all to Old Etonians and Old Harrovians, and then we get Thomas Cook – who really ought to feature in some of those “Greatest Britons of all times” lists – making trips to the Alps available for the lower-middle-classes.

In the middle of all this is the actual climbing. There are debates over whether or not it’s appropriate to put yourself in danger. The endless questions over why people climb mountains. And the organisation of sport – which, as the author points out, is a very British thing.   Or English thing. First it’s the Alpine clubs. Then, later, it’s ski-ing, tobogganing and ice-skating as well, and the development of winter holidays from the 1870s onwards And, of course, the idea of health resorts, and the establishment in the Alps of sanatoria for TB patients.

There are still interruptions by political events. Thomas Cook had planned to take trips to the Passion Play at Oberammergau in 1870, until the Prussians and the French decided to have a war. And, before that, there were all the clashes between Italy, France and Austria over Italian independence. But, generally, it’s onwards and upwards.   I think he exaggerates the role that tourism played in the development of the countries involved – I don’t think you can really say that the Swiss banking system developed in order to finance decent toilets and nice afternoon teas for British tourists, and I’m sure that the good people of Milan and Turin would have something to say about the idea that tourism pulled Lombardy and Piedmont out of poverty – but, as with the spread of the English language, it certainly played an important role.

But, as with everything else, other countries were getting in on the act. The book is called “How the English made the Alps” … and, by the 1890s, a lot of tourists were coming from elsewhere as well. Then, of course, came the First World War, the Depression, and the Second World War. And all the social change too: the old British Alpine clubs were seen as stuffy and snobby. The book ends rather sadly and abruptly, focusing on the fact that most tourists in the Alps now come from Germany and elsewhere, rather than on the fact that so many British people still go to the Alps and have such a wonderful time there, and also focusing on the eternal problem of tourism, that beautiful places become overcrowded and overdeveloped.

It’s not the cheeriest of endings, but there’s a lot in this book. I think he could have written more about Victorian attitudes generally, the whole Muscular Christianity and a Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body thing, but the tales of conquering the Alps are still inspiring, all the tea and toilets stuff rather amusing, and the whole story of the development of tourism and winter sports in the Alps fascinating.





4 thoughts on “How the English made the Alps by Jim Ring

  1. Chris Deeley

    A couple of minor points: Lucerne isn’t in the Alps and Thomas Cook facilitated recreational travel for the middle middle class rather than the lower middle class. I haven’t read the book, but agree with the author’s thesis that the Brits popularised holidays in Switzerland – as they did in the South of France and elsewhere.


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